My mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, would have turned 90 last Sunday. Although it is now nearly 10 years since she passed away, there is not a February 4 that goes by without me remembering the year we all forgot her birthday.
It was a Friday in 1972. We’d been in Madrid just six months for Dad’s Embassy assignment running the US Information Service country-wide operation. I was doing my senior year at Torrejon Air Base High School, trying out for the production of Lil Abner without understanding that it had been picked for roles suited to the long-term “military brats.” Susie was in her sophomore year at Torrejon, a cheerleader and girlfriend of a senior on the football team. We rode the same Base bus each morning but lived in different strata. This doesn’t excuse our lapse but may be how we managed to be so individually-centered that year. Dad was immersed in the job. We were all up and out the door with scarely a bye, and without any of us giving Mom a single birthday hug.
In some families, the absence of celebration wouldn’t be noticed early in the day, and we might have recovered from the lapse by, say, a birthday dinner. But in our home, birthdays were celebrated at breakfast, a tradition born of Dad’s late working hours and our parents’ frequent evening engagements representing the Embassy.
Birthday Breakfast involved festooning the chosen one’s chair with streamers and balloons and piling cards and presents on the designated placemat and decorating the table with a fresh bouquet, and keeping the Birthday Girl (or Dad) away from the table until the candles on the coffee cake were lit. There was a Birthday Crown.
That Friday morning, Mom’s breakfast chair was bare, her plate was empty of home made cards, and the table wasn’t festooned with a birthday bouquet. We were clueless that we’d just broken Mom’s heart.
It still astonishes me.
And, worse, Mom said nothing. Her eventual “I’m disappointed” — the understated Norwegian version of yelling — still resonates.
There were no family or close friends to make up for our omission. Mom’s mother was 5,700 miles away in Sun City, California, where she had moved to live with her sister after Grandpa died. Mom’s brother, now running the family store in Minnesota, was unpredictable. Her circle of childhood friends would have surrounded her with laughter and cake, had she not left Winona more than two decades before for a different life, choosing, unknowingly, a life without the kind of friends who would call after the family left for their day to wish you happy birthday and be outraged with you at your selfish husband and children.
The life of the Foreign Service wife in the Cold War era was regulated by hierarchical relationships: your husband’s position and tenure in each short-term assignment dictated your position among the spouses. Upon arriving at a post, you “called on” the Ambassador’s wife and the spouses of the senior Embassy staff who, in turn, would pull you into activities designed to integrate you into the entire Mission team. You’d become well acquainted with your peers and even friendly with those you liked best, but it was all at arm’s length. These were short-term relationships with people in the business; even if you could establish more intimate friendships, it was business.
Mom was initiated in the role in the 1950s as the junior spouse in Caracas, recruited to make finger food for receptions at the Ambassador’s Residence. In that era, helping to hostess a party was a reasonable assignment that helped your husband do his job. Post by post, she and Dad became a team: accompanying visiting dignitaries to La Scala in Milan, to a papal audience in Rome; attending the Marine Ball in Madrid.
You would not be paid. You could not get a job that did pay.
But, mostly the role of the Foreign Service wife was to establish, and re-establish, and re-establish a serene home for her family. The State Department put it this way:
…the Foreign Service wife is instantly thrown into a strenuous intercultural situation requiring much energy and rapid accomplishment in establishing her household and family in a new situation…Hardly any wife has chosen this as her own way of life; most have accepted it gracefully as a by-product of their choice of mate….
Guidelines for Representational Responsibilities of Wives in our Posts Abroad, Management Reform Bulletin No. 20, June 3, 1971, US Department of State
So, the least “her household and family” could do was remember that 4th of February was The Foreign Service Wife’s birthday. But the weekend went by and nothing.
On Monday, the clue arrived in the Embassy Air Force Post Office box: the annual “astral twin” Snoopy birthday card from Mom’s college friend Dot Wortman. Dana, Dad’s secretary, lay it on the top of the pile. The envelope and Dot’s distinctive handwriting tipped Dad off. He composed a poem on his lunch hour, drafted it in his best calligraphy before he left the office, and stopped by the florists around the corner from the Embassy on his way home. My cheeks remember the hot flush of embarrassment when I saw the flowers in the center of the table, the cream-colored stationery of Dad’s poem propped up against the vase. I don’t remember what I said, or how I tried to make it up to Mom. Or Susie’s reaction.
What I do remember is Mom’s disappointment.
When I told my 25 year-old daughter about this incident the other day, she was appalled. She was raised in the Birthday Breakfast tradition. She had good reason to be appalled.
And on my own birthday the next year, when I had been set adrift at an American college while they went on to Dad’s next post, the Birthday Crown magically appeared at the foot of my dorm room bed. Mom and my roommate had conspired to transport Birthday Breakfast across the Atlantic from Italy to Ohio.
Which makes February 4, 1972 that much meaner.